By Erik Nikander
Qualms aside, Slow Food is an enjoyable show that taps into the uncertainties of middle-aged parents who must confront a strange, new life without the kids.
Slow Food by Wendy MacLeod. Directed by Sean Daniels. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theater at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre at Liberty Hall, Lowell, MA, through February 3.
A show like Slow Food is a little difficult to write about. First of all, it’s a play about food, which tempts any critic’s appetite for tortured culinary metaphors. Second, and more importantly, Slow Food occupies a dramatic middle ground in terms of quality. You couldn’t call it a bad play; it’s an enjoyably light comedy that provides plenty of chuckles throughout. At the same time, it’s not quite good enough to recommend wholeheartedly or praise without reservation. Parts of the play are brilliant; others feel fundamentally ill-conceived. In other words, the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of this new comedy offers plenty to savor, but also could have used a bit more time in the oven. Oh, damn it.
A middle-aged couple (Daina Michelle Griffith and Joel Van Liew) are enjoying their first Palm Springs vacation as empty nesters. Or, at least, they’re trying to. The rental car service bungled their reservation, the hot tub at their hotel was broken, and every restaurant nearby was closed except for one, a little Greek place called Dimitri’s. Hungry, exhausted, and emotionally vulnerable, they find themselves at the mercy of an overbearing waiter (Brian Beacock) whose idea of good service involves micromanaging every part of the restaurant experience — except for the serving-food-in-a-timely-manner part. An epic battle of wills ensues that will drive the trio off the cliff of good dining etiquette.
Playwright Wendy MacLeod has picked a universal sweet spot of irritation as her subject, and wisely so. Everyone’s experienced subpar restaurant service, and many have had to cope with an overbearing waiter (or waitress’s) personality. MacLeod scatters bits of impish conflict throughout the piece, such as the waiter’s insistence on steering the husband towards a local craft brew — rather than his usual Sam Adams. This kind of business is grounded in reality and that makes it engaging. That said, despite the playwright’s insightful writing and the efforts of director Sean Daniels and his cast, the show drags at times, occasionally feeling like a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched out to 95 minutes. It’s a paradox: Slow Food would benefit from moving a bit more quickly, dramatizing the experience of sluggish service rather than re-creating it in full.
Daniels’ direction is perfectly serviceable, in that he doesn’t elevate the material beyond its weaknesses but neither does he undercut its good qualities. Admittedly, the opportunities for dramatic movement are meager when two of the script’s three characters are seated at a table throughout most of the piece. But it’s hard not to wish more had been done more to push against the script’s limitations. There are a few inspired movement choices, such as when the husband and the waiter fight over a napkin: the husband repeatedly hurls it to the ground, and the waiter, in turn, picks it up and replaces it on the table in a huff. This kind of physical comedy compliments the scene’s verbal combat — but moments like these are the exception rather than the rule. They don’t occur often enough to liven up a static visual tableau.
The cast, in general, makes the most of the material. Van Liew and Griffith are convincing as a married couple facing the uncertainties of middle age. The scenes in which the two reminisce over the life they’ve built together together — including anxieties over their children, career worries, medical scares, and the like — are genuinely touching. The actors also do well with the piece’s farcical side, but they’re afforded precious few opportunities to build to a comedic climax. Brian Beacock’s waiter, on the other hand, is saddled with the opposite problem. The performer excels at playing the server’s exaggerated nature, from his domineering presence to his blithe indifference in the face of his guests’ obvious discomfort. For the most part, though, he feels more like a caricature of overbearing service rather than a flesh-and-blood person. The couple are given humanizing moments but, apart from a few brief glimpses at something deeper, the waiter charges through the play in a cartoonish frenzy.
MRT’s technical efforts are also mostly satisfactory. Apollo Mark Weaver’s scenic work is exceptional. His design for Dimitri’s is appealingly homey; this is a place you might be tempted to stick around in even if the service is lousy. The food props are also appetizing, despite a flub involving the inconsistent coloration of prop beer. Though the play only requires three costumes, Deborah Newhall has crafted them with care, and they’re a great help in communicating each character’s personality. The lighting by Brian J. Lilienthal was usually effective, though from time to time it proved distracting when characters moved about and the lighting cue visibly shifted to follow them. This didn’t happen often, but, when it did, it marred the theatrical illusion.
Qualms aside, Slow Food is an enjoyable show that taps into the uncertainties of middle-aged parents who must confront a strange, new life without the kids. It also generates plenty of laughs from a conflict that most of us have experienced: the desperate fight to have dinner in peace. That said, too much of the matter here has been stretched too thin — it’s a serviceable slice-of-life comedy, but not much more than that. If its dramatic recipe were reassessed, properly spiced and fattened up, Slow Food could become a decadent theatrical treat. Oops ….
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.